Categories: NewsletterPublished On: 25.05.20211356 words6.8 min read

If Brexit drew attention to the vital role that ports play in all our lives, then Covid-19 underlined it in red ink

Lockdowns, restrictions, cancellations … we could be forgiven for feeling that 2020 was the year when someone pressed the ‘pause’ button. But even as we found ourselves losing sense of time and of whatever ‘normal’ was before, the fundamentals remained.

Covid-19 laid bare the important things in life. Family, friends, health – of course. But underpinning those priorities? The availability of food, fuel and medical supplies, not to mention loo paper, coffee, laptops for working at home, comfortable clothes and a wide range of household goods. All of that, and so much more, is imported across the 70 terminals and wharves of the Port of London.

If Brexit drew attention to the vital role that ports play in all of our lives, then Covid-19 underlined it in red ink. The difficulties were immense – but the Port of London stepped up to the challenge in a year like none other.

“To sum up 2020? We have been remarkably resilient through a very tough year,” says Robin Mortimer, CEO of the Port of London Authority. “We have kept the country supplied, thanks to our people working really hard – and we should be proud of what we have achieved.”

It’s been said that ports are the ultimate ‘shock absorbers’. The PLA and operators the length of the tidal Thames excelled in absorbing the Covid shock – finding new ways to work and continue to deliver a reliable flow of every type of cargo.

The PLA’s response started well before the March lockdown.

“We asked people to work from home wherever possible and we provided hand sanitiser and face masks, long before the government advice to do so,” says Robin Mortimer. “At the same time, we worked through the issues on the operational side, with a huge focus on ensuring our frontline people could continue to work safely.

“We reconfigured the operations centre to keep people separated. We limited the number of pilots on cutters. We put rules in place around the people who were coming to the office. We made laptops available for everyone who didn’t already have them. Because we responded

quickly, by the time there was a legal requirement to be ‘Covid-secure’, we were already there. And above all, we have been flexible.”

Terminal operators put their own arrangements in place – and the overall picture was remarkably effective. “We didn’t delay a single ship. Generally, people have been pragmatic and sensible. And it has been important to emphasise the ‘frontline’ nature of what our people do. They deserve to feel valued. We pay tribute to the resilience, ingenuity and pride of our staff in enabling the logistics chains that we are part of to continue to function.”

Before Covid-19 hit, the Port of London had been expected to handle about 55 million tonnes of cargo in 2020. While volumes were significantly knocked back, largely due to the falling demand for oil and fuels – especially aviation fuel – the impact was less serious than initially feared. Aggregate volumes in particular bounced back quickly as construction work recommenced.

What will picture look like in 2021 and beyond? No one can be certain of that. “We are expecting 2021 to be better than 2020 but that is a broad assumption to make. We are acutely aware that many sectors are on their knees – we are not, and recovery for us will be nowhere near the same challenge. We expect a slow but steady increase in overall cargo volumes and within that a lot of variations.”

Despite the many obstacles thrown up by the pandemic, investment continued on the Thames, reflecting a real sense of optimism. Forth Ports completed construction of its Tilbury2 terminal, which provides the UK’s largest unaccompanied ro-ro ferry port and largest construction materials terminal, and a series of other expansions got under way during 2020.

Planning continued for the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, despite the uncertainty.

The policy of safeguarding wharves for freight operations was reconfirmed following the Mayor’s review, and the PLA continues to champion the protection and reactivation of these facilities. “The key thing is having the policy framework in place – we now need to make the best use of that by investing seriously in getting safeguarded wharves and other access points operational for freight,” says Robin Mortimer.

It would be easy to assume that the ‘green’ side of life was put on hold in 2020 but nothing could be further from the truth. The PLA’s commitment to Net Zero underpins everything else.

“We will soon be publishing our commitment as an organisation in getting to Net Zero,” he says. “This commitment is driving a lot of investment and in the future, we will factor in the price of carbon when considering every investment and major maintenance decision. Actually quantifying the impact on the climate of everything you do is a game changer – it could well lead to different investment decisions. We are encouraging others to do the same.”

In this, the PLA has chosen to use the UN recommended ‘price’ for carbon, calculating the damage at £80 per tonne of carbon produced. “Whether you are choosing a vessel or deciding whether to put solar panels on the roof, you should be calculating the carbon that would be generated or saved over that investment’s lifetime, as well as the financial gains. In other words, we are calculating the damage and pricing it in. I have always believed that is the best way forward in properly getting the economy carbon neutral.”

It is vital not to lose sight of the green agenda while caught up in the post-Covid recovery, says Robin Mortimer. Another part of that is the PLA’s championing water transport for light freight and last-mile logistics as well as the established movement of spoil, aggregates, waste and construction materials on the river.

But also in this area, there’s a tricky balance to be made with the needs of offshore wind farms. The PLA was strongly against the proposed Thanet Offshore Wind Farm extension because it would have impacted on the port’s navigation and pilot operations. During 2020, the Development Consent Order (DCO) for the extension was refused.

“We recognise that there needs to be a huge expansion in offshore wind,” he says. “The question is how to achieve that in a way that also allows the port to continue operating. There needs to be better dialogue between the maritime sector and the offshore wind sector to identify win-win areas, rather than fighting over pieces of the sea that are occupied for other purposes. There is no mechanism other than the planning system to reconcile these two economic goods – and since it did arise, we were delighted to win the argument.”

When the pandemic emerged at the start of 2020, the PLA had never tested its systems for 100% home working. However, the organisation reaped the rewards of significant investments in IT systems over the past few years, including moving data to the Cloud. “That meant we were well set up for remote working and not depending on the strength of our own servers,” says Robin Mortimer. “We moved across to Teams meetings and other social media platforms and did a lot to make our people feel connected. We even had a challenge raising money for Seafarers UK – an ‘Around the World with the PLA’ in which everyone posted online how far they had cycled, walked, run, navigated a ship and so on. That gave people a feeling of belonging.

“We had daily meetings online to sort out the many issues that arose at the start. But we also had to get away from the feeling that you must have people in meetings to make sure they are working. Trust is important, together with providing the support that people need to do their jobs while working remotely.”

And there were many positives. Through a regular online newsletter and various social media platforms, new relationships were built and existing relationships were strengthened, with customers and colleagues, government and its agencies, and other ports and organisations.